Sunday, June 10, 2012

Feminism is Not a Four-letter Word

Earlier this year I identified myself openly as a feminist. I did this because, as I wrote then, I believe in the radical notion that women are people. I view feminism as the next stage in the journey toward recognizing and affirming the inherent dignity and worth of all of God's people. It took us far too long to admit that slavery was wrong and take the steps to abolish it. Although it unfortunately persists to this day, most people would denounce it as fundamentally immoral because it exalts the value and worth (along with the power and control) of one human or group of humans over another. 

As people began to recognize and fight against the immorality of slavery, they also saw that the denigration and marginalization of women, their treatment as inferior beings, was also morally untenable. It has taken longer for this truth to gain traction and acceptance in society, but as feminism continues to speak out against the injustices women suffer globally its message grows stronger, as does the reaction against it. This doesn't surprise me, although it saddens me. In order to achieve the full equality of women, the patriarchal systems that have dominated human society throughout its history must be dismantled. This threatens those who enjoy the power and privilege that comes with the current structure—namely men. Julie Clawson stated this quite well in her series of blog posts describing her journey to affirming feminism.

“The feminist movement is a threat to patriarchy, there is no way around that fact. And any voice or movement that attempts to challenge the power and prestige of those supporting the status quo is bound to receive some major push-back. Since actually engaging in conversation about whether women are fully human, worthy of respect, and intelligent would be devastating to the culture of patriarchy, feminism isn't debated in our culture; it is simply slurred.”

In her series Clawson describes the obstacles that hindered her initially from identifying with feminism. The campaign against feminism, against affirming the full equality, worth and dignity of women, has been so successful in this country that even many who believe in the inherent value of women often hesitate to identify themselves as feminist. My wife would be among them. She absolutely affirms her value and that of other women, but she resists identifying herself as a feminist because of the negative baggage associated with the term. I imagine there are many others like my wife, and like myself and Julie Clawson for so long, who fear the negative response they will get if they identify themselves as feminists. As Clawson says:

“Yep, that was me. I was all ready to escape from patriarchy's lies, to live into my full potential as a woman, and to benefit from the work of feminists of the past, but I was scared to actually call myself one. I didn't want to be mocked or called a feminazi simply for suggesting that women were people too.”

Clawson provides a helpful, honest description of her journey to feminism, and I would strongly encourage readers to take the time to read her story, contained in five parts, to each of which I provide direct links here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5. I appreciate Clawson's recognition that too many people identify feminism with one or two specific issues which they oppose and use that to dismiss the whole idea. These two ideas are that feminists all support abortion rights and all feminists are man-haters. Clawson unpacks the fallacy of these limitations nicely, but in order to work to debunk these false stereotypes, let me state that most feminists are in fact not anti-men, and not all feminists support abortion-on-demand. Feminism is not about exalting women over men, but affirming the full equality of men and women and building a society in which men and women work and live together in partnership. Yes, feminism advocates the dismantling of patriarchy, but not the establishment of a matriarchy nor the denial of the worth and dignity of men. Clawson describes it in these words:

“While I agree that for respect to flourish, patriarchal attitudes that denigrate women or privilege men at the expense of women will have to be sacrificed, those things are sins that need to be repented of and not the core aspects of male identity that some have argued they are.”

Like Clawson, I am no longer afraid to be called a feminist. I choose to deal with the negative labels and slander that come my way as a result because, to again cite Clawson, “As a Christ-follower who cares about the truth (not to mention justice), I believe it is necessary to oppose these lies and dismantle misunderstandings with the light of reality.” Clawson also refers to a comment left by a woman on her blog, in which she wrote: “If I don't self-identify as a feminist, then that allows people to maintain their stereotypes of feminists and who we are.” Feminism is ultimately a positive belief – the affirmation of the value, worth and dignity of women for who they are, without prescribing what that must look like. There is diversity within feminism, but the essential core message should resonate with all who call themselves by the name of Jesus Christ. Jesus in his words and his actions actively affirmed the dignity of women, and so must we. That is why I am a feminist.

“I no longer think of 'feminism' as the f-word or a term to be avoided, but a way of life to be embraced. A way of life that helps women break free of the cage of patriarchy and find the space to become whole.”

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